Tantalising sonic and visual atmosphere of Garsington’s The Turn of the Screw lingers intensely in the mind

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Garsington Opera 2022 [4] – Britten, The Turn of the Screw: Soloists, Philharmonia Orchestra / Mark Wigglesworth (conductor). Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 15.7.2022. (CR)

Ben Fletcher (Miles) and Robert Murray (Peter Quint) © Julian Guidera

Director – Louisa Muller
Designer – Christopher Oram
Lighting designer – Malcolm Rippeth

Prologue / Peter Quint – Robert Murray
Governess – Verity Wingate
Flora – Maia Greaves
Miles – Ben Fletcher
Mrs Grose – Susan Bickley
Miss Jessel – Helena Dix

Louisa Muller’s production of The Turn of the Screw was first seen at Garsington Opera in 2019, and in many respects it still speaks as powerfully as it did then. Visually the design of Christopher Oram’s set is hauntingly potent, as the austere hall of the decaying house at Bly is enclosed on two sides, making it seemingly coterminous with the festival’s auditorium itself, but opens out to the audience to make us feel nearly involved with the action which takes place over its cold, dull flagstone floor. That space becomes the symbolic receptacle for the paraphernalia of childhood memories and innocence as the toys which Miles and Flora have played with – hoop, rocking horse, mock sword, toy theatre – are deposited there as one scene follows another. The theatre not only reminds us that we are witnessing a performance, but perhaps evokes the motif of the stage that recurs in Ingmar Bergman’s work (Ansiktet or Fanny and Alexander for example) as the forum in which the mysterious drives of inner emotional and psychological forces can be played out and processed.

Furthermore, the trickle of water which breaks into that hall – and through which the apparition of Miss Jessel obtrudes into the house – literally embodies the lake from which she is said to emerge in the libretto, suggestively representing some dark psychological depth that human consciousness usually prefers not to contemplate. As the audience leave the auditorium at the end of the performance, we surely do not feel quite so charmed by the black body of water which now broods in the dusk within the grounds at the Wormsley Estate as we did in the clear light of day beforehand.

Garsington Opera’s The Turn of the Screw © Julian Guidera

Nevertheless, however choreographically alert in conception and execution, following Deborah Warner’s fine new production of Peter Grimes for Covent Garden earlier this year which set that story in a contemporary, rundown coastal town to revitalise its themes of societal disintegration and antagonism, it seems more apt now to wonder whether Muller’s vision of The Turn of the Screw seems a touch cosy and twee. Set within the same stifling era (at the turn of the twentieth century) in which the original novella was written, it risks becoming a tired, straightforwardly Freudian yarn, and more like an M.R. James ghost story with its sensational apparitions, than a subtly crafted narrative based on the work of his literary namesake. Just as, from that same era, productions of Salome generally do not remain rooted in the fin de siècle (for all its examination of ostensibly repressed, perverted sexual desires) and nor is Pelléas et Mélisande often tied to any particular time or place (as a similar exploration of a dehumanised, loveless environment where moral values have become hypocritical or meaningless) so this opera could be untethered from that context. The late Victorian aura of this setting may represent a conveniently graspable past in which a middle class English audience may identify the source of its neuroses, and from which ‘man hands on misery to man’, but Britten’s chillingly eloquent work could also surely encompass the prospect of a less localised application in a different directorial concept.

It is testament to the singing and acting skills of the cast that the drama undoubtedly remains so compelling – not least on the occasions when Mrs Grose and the new Governess each address the audience directly as they condemn the malign influences of the spectral Quint and Miss Jessel, threatening to make us collude with their easy, narrow moral judgments that presumably caused those characters, when alive, to become ostracised in the first place. The force of personality cogently exerted by the singers in their different roles superbly realises James’s ingenious ability in the original narrative to decentre it away from any particular character, but to keep open a multiplicity of viewpoints.

Verity Wingate sustains an absolutely secure, and often lyrical, musical presence, even as the Governess evolves from her naïve, well-meaning expectations on her arrival at Bly, to her near breakdown as she witnesses the countervailing influence of psychological motivations acting against her prim outlook. As we see her cradling the dead Miles at the end, like a modern Pietà, we realise that the tragedy of the drama is as much hers as the boy’s. The young Ben Fletcher’s account of the latter role is remarkably astute, with respect to both his unwavering, agile singing, and unflinching acting, uncowed in his encounters with the ways of the world. Maia Greaves is an often absorbingly inscrutable Flora on stage, but musically incisive, both children sounding as though they already know more about reality than the Governess.

As the phantasms Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, Robert Murray and Helena Dix start out with eerie, ethereal clarity, but as they impress themselves more upon the children’s consciousness they magnificently become more articulate and musically embodied than the living characters around them, vividly capturing the ambiguity as to which psychological and moral forces are more persuasive or manifest in this work. Susan Bickley is a resilient Mrs Grose, musically expressive even as she frets and panics at the presence of the ghosts.

The emotional thrust of the drama is carried as effectively by the select group of performers from the Philharmonic Orchestra. Under Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting, the chamber ensemble shimmers and quivers, as it sets a lithe but tense background for the stage action and comments sympathetically on it (especially with the solo interjections from oboe and clarinet for instance) often seeming as though the instruments are engaged in direct dialogue with the characters. It is the tantalising sonic and visual atmosphere of this production, rather than the concept as such, which lingers intensely in the mind.

Curtis Rogers

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